Voyagers & the Pirate Brothers Straits of Malacca – November’03

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Devagami looked like any other native fisherman, naked except for a loincloth of bark and a spike to spear fish, the art he’s adept at. For ten days he had been rowing up and down the coast in a dugout canoe and he hadn’t noticed anything suspicious… until today.

His job was to scout ahead, enter every inlet and look for the signs of the pirate lair and signal back. Sometimes he had to row all the way back to the flagship. Progress was slow. The prince was still undecided, if he should deploy the modest force from land or sea. The information brought by his only scout will be crucial.

The signs were unmistakable; the inlet led to a freshwater lagoon fed by a mountain stream, separated by a thick screen of trees making the hideout almost impossible to find. A large group of people must have lived there, until very recently. The shelters were intact but bereft of men, only a few women and children lazed about. Wherever the men had gone, they aren’t coming back soon, he thought. There is only one way to find out; he snuck back and took a detour, a long circuit around the lagoon, far away from the shanties that surrounded it, before returning to the canoe.

‘There are more than a thousand men, lord,’ he burst out as soon as he reached the flagship. ‘The tracks are easy to follow, and I think they’re mostly local Bataks dragging Praus, boats that can carry a dozen men apiece, about,’ he said.

‘When do you think they left?’ the prince asked.

‘More than a week, lord, and they are following the coast,’ he said pointing north.

‘Then we must leave the ships here and tail them on foot,’ Prince Pulomavi had decided.

‘Once the morning mist clears, we can see miles on both sides,’ the voice grated with excitement as Damila Velan cleared his throat and spat a lump of phlegm which disappeared even before it reached the waves breaking on the rocky shore deep below their perch,

‘Perfect place for an ambush,’ his brother Maran patted his back.

They were standing on top of an atoll, set in the middle of the straits like a sentinel. Coves, big and small, behind such coral isles are well hidden even from the eyes of the most seasoned sailors. ‘You can’t ask for more,’ Velan grated on, ‘the channel is narrowest here and those big tubs will be sitting ducks without those frigates guarding their flanks.’

‘Let me get back then,’ Maran laughed. ‘I shall wait in that cove, ready to attack at your signal. We have complete advantage with our thousand Batak warriors… too eager to collect heads, aren’t they?’ he pointed at the inlet hardly visible to the naked eye.

‘Watch out brother, our target is the one with the Kamboja flag,’ Velan said looking at the first ship coming into the view as it turned the corner. ‘Once we have the princess, that monster Satakarni will have to pay.’ He rolled his tongue and spat again.

The frigates were the first to come, bristling with men and lookouts on their high masts scanning the shores for any signs of pirates which they are sure will emerge anytime. Let them go, Velan thought, once they passed the rocky atoll there is no way they can turn back, the straits are too narrow for that maneuver. A couple of merchant ships with little sign of fighting men followed; good, he thought, probably filled with spices and such merchandise he had no interest in. They will also be an effective hurdle in case some of those frigates manage to turn around…Velan almost fell about laughing, silently though, when his target came into view, a large twin mast with a well-appointed cabin, with gilded roof, built like a castle… fifty-odd men with leather shields and swords and their crests clearly showing who they were. A banner of the royal house of Kamboja flew on the foremast. Another ship followed, a benign merchant and the escort of frigates far behind. Time to signal the attack… he blew the horn.

‘What a fool!’ prince Pulomavi cursed, watching the convoy from high ground. ‘Whoever is leading the fleet must be out of his mind,’ he was surrounded by the captains waiting for his instructions, the ship with the Kamboja flag means, his bride is in it. And she will be vulnerable. ‘If an attack takes place now she’ll have no one to protect her.’

It was this very likelihood had compelled him to make this trip. He was visiting at Musiri in the province of the Keralaputras, when he heard about the presence of the dreaded pirates in the eastern seas. With the victories of his father, Gautamiputra Satakarni the overland routes of Dakshinapatha to Kalyani and Sopara have become the preferred option of spice and textile traders. The southern routes between the spice-islands and the ports of Pandya country have gone out of favor. They have become the breeding grounds of discontent. In the renegade pirates they
have found an effective instrument to sabotage the dominance of Satavahana power in the
eastern seas.

‘Their object is to capture the tribute ships and dent the prestige of Satavahanas,’ his spies had informed, ‘and now the news of the princess gives them an opportunity, to negotiate safe passage with her as hostage.’

Time was of essence. He must thwart their attempt to capture the princess. She’s his bride-to-be and so he had taken it as a challenge to his person. He rode two days and a night without stopping to Comari. The lone ship available was a catamaran. With only his personal guard, he embarked on the trip, not minding the stormy season.

Winds pushed his vessel away from the intended destination, the fortress of Manikkavaram, to a landfall on the southern coast of Suvarna Dwipa, fortunately just in time to commandeer the fleet from Yavadwipa.

But now the sloppiness of the fleet commander had presented the pirates their prize on a platter. If the pirates attack now, there is no way of saving his bride, an impotent rage enveloped him. ‘We need time,’ he shouted at no one in particular, ‘to stop the fleet and reorganize it… and beat some sense into that bastard whoever is commanding it.’

Then… he heard the sound of horn.

He was too far away to intervene. He became just a horrified spectator as things began to go out of hands.

Hooks were being thrown at the ship immobilizing it, a swarm of boats appeared out of nowhere and the Batak men with their short spears began climbing up its sides. Within moments the decks were filled with savages screaming for blood, led by Maran, whom the prince recognized as one of the notorious Damila brothers.

The ship’s guard formed into a tight circle around the cabin making a stand, but was outnumbered ten to one within no time, and they slowly began retreating towards the foredeck. Pulomavi watched helplessly knowing that complete rout now was certain. Maran rushed them, giving them no option but to jump overboard, and then he ran towards the cabin sure of capturing the hostages. ‘Poor thing,’ Pulomavi cursed, thinking about the girl, his-bride-not-to-be.

At that very moment the cabin blew up in a loud bang, and the ship caught fire like a tinder box. More than half the pirates and their leader Maran were consumed by the fire within minutes.

The explosion signaled the crew of the merchant vessels to open the trapdoors to below decks. Jaya Varma, the Admiral of Champa led the troops that emerged from bellies of the harmless looking ships like ants out of a hole. With short swords they dived into the melee, tipping over the boats and slaughtering the bewildered pirates.

It’s all a trick. Prince Pulomavi roared with glee. ‘What a strategy,’ he shouted to his captains. ‘Whoever planned it deserves the greatest honor the emperor can bestow.’

Velan saw his brother go up in flames, numbed by the turn of events.

A small remnant of his savage army scurried to the safety of the shore, being chased by Jaya Varma’s troops. He was in two minds, should he take a stand with them or escape into the woods. He knew he’s finished. His instincts told him to run for his life. Then he saw his rag tag pirates run straight into the waiting troops of the prince.

He saw the banners and recognized the prince, son and heir of his avowed enemy, Satakarni.

Vengeance! He was consumed by that singular thought, urge to kill.

Pulomavi was standing on high-ground with Jaya Varma, overseeing the clearing up of the last remaining pirates.

Unaware of the two eyes watching his every move, Velan crawled into the undergrowth to draw nearer to the prince. Now his target was within the range of his spear and easy. For a better shot he moved to open ground and took aim…

Pulomavi saw the spear being aimed at him, close enough for a sure shot and too far away for his sword. For a long moment he waited for the point to fly into him. The pirate’s eyes consumed by revenge bored into him and the taut muscles of his arm stretched to the full about to cast the shaft.

Just then… a net made of freshly woven lianas fell on the pirate, immobilizing him. The next moment ‘the scout who walks with gods’ was standing on the pirate leader with a foot on his chest and the fishing spike at his throat.


Camphor, Cardamom, Clove, Cinnamon, Cassia, Ginger, Pepper, Turmeric and Aloe; the desire for spices had been the key to India’s interaction with West. The Spice Trade is as old as human civilization. During the height of Roman Empire, the price of a pound of pepper was as high as ‘fifteen denarii’ that is equivalent to the monthly income of fifteen common citizens. Profits were high. The Indian merchants kept the sources and routes to the spice producing lands of East Asia a closely guarded secret, weaving fanciful stories and accounts of the lands
shrouded in mystery, magic and myth.

The earliest centers of procurement in Southeast Asia were established by Telugu merchants. The raw merchandise arrived at the east coast of India at its principal ports of Andhra and distributed to the various processing centers where it was converted to exportable commodities – cosmetics, perfumes and medicinal preparations. The western merchants, Ethiopian, Greek, Roman and Arab, visited at the trading posts on the west coast and carried on the trade to further destinations. In the east, the principal route from the mouths of Krishna to the South China Sea passed through the Malacca Straits, beyond which the routes diverged to the rest of Southeast Asia.

The Straits of Malacca acted as the Gateway of Andhra. To the immediate west of Singapore, the straits are the narrowest and are a haven for pirates. In the interest of merchantmen it had become imperative for the successive ruling dynasties of Andhra to keep the straits pirate-free.

Amaravati was able to exert its hegemony over the route in the early historical times between 2nd Century BC to the 5th Century during the Śātavāhana, Išvāku, Śālankayāna and Early Pallava periods. The Post Roman lull in trade was revived in the 11th Century under the kings Kulōtthunga and Rājēndra Chōda, and was maintained by Kākatīyas. But it was just a flash in the pan. By the end of 13th Century, the control of the Spice Trade and the processing industry
had gone completely out of the hands of the Indians. Srīnātha’s eulogy of Avachi Thippayya in 14th Century shows a limited sphere of Burmese coast for our merchants.

By the late-medieval times Arab merchants extended their influence beyond their sea, and the Spice Route dipped south making a short pit-stop at the ports of Ceylon and Malabar. Manufacturing processes slowly moved away to the Arab hands. With the Portuguese entry into the eastern seas, the contribution of India to the Spice Trade was reduced further to that of a plantation producer.



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